FPI Fact Sheet: The Case for Intervention in Libya

March 30, 2011

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President Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya in an effort to protect the Libyan people from the dictatorial regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi has been criticized by many on the left and the right.  Valid questions have been raised about the scope and duration of U.S. involvement and members of Congress have highlighted the need for adequate consultation of Congress.  Unfortunately, some of the opposition to intervention in Libya has been based upon mistaken assumptions about the U.S. role, the mission, and what is at stake. 

Why are we involved in Libya?

We are involved in coalition military operations to protect the Libyan people from further killing and bloodshed by forces loyal to Qaddafi.  After weeks of regime violence against the Libyan people, President Obama rightly decided that the costs of continued inaction were too high.  As he noted in his address on March 29, “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are.”

In mid-February, inspired by the overthrow of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak, the people of Libya began their own rebellion against Qaddafi.  What began as a series of street protests and demonstrations quickly became a widespread popular uprising, leading to the expulsion of Qaddafi’s forces from several cities.  In early-March, rebel positions came under intense attack by loyalist tanks, infantry, and air assets.  Despite claims by some at the time that what was taking place was merely a civil war, reports of atrocities against civilians began to emerge.  As FPI Executive Director Jamie Fly wrote at the time, “It might be convenient to avert our eyes or write off such reports as exaggerated opposition claims, but there are enough examples of such accounts that the human toll in Libya is undeniable.”  By mid-March, several rebel-held towns were retaken, regime forces were closing in on the opposition stronghold of Benghazi, and many feared a humanitarian catastrophe at the hands of Qaddafi’s army. 

On March 18, Qaddafi said to those in rebel-occupied areas that we “Will come house by house, room by room,” and vowed, “We will find you in your closets.  We will have no mercy.”  Obama administration officials have stated that tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of civilians could have been killed in regime reprisals against Benghazi if the international community did not act to halt Qaddafi’s advance.  In the words of one official, “We were looking at ‘Srebrenica on steroids.’”

In Libya, our values and our interests thus converged. Colonel Qaddafi sponsored terrorism against the United States for decades, and pursued weapons of mass destruction before forgoing those programs in 2003 after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Despite his subsequent rapprochement with the international community, the barbarity of his actions in recent weeks reminded the world that he, and his regime, had not changed.  It also made clear that for the sake of Libya’s future stability, Qaddafi needed to be removed from power.  As Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told attendees at a recent FPI conference, “This, in my mind, is just a no-brainer, it’s fairly very straight-forward. Just for the simple fact that Moammar Qaddafi slaughtered Americans as if they were sheep not that long ago. That warrants him falling from power. He does not get a pass on that. And if we were to allow an individual who has so relentlessly deployed terrorism against the United States in the past a pass, it’s just inexcusable.”

The stakes in Libya are broader than just our direct interest in supporting the Libyan people and seeing Qaddafi removed from power.  Although protesters are taking to the streets throughout the Middle East, only in North Africa has the Arab Spring thus far produced revolutionary changes in government.  The people of Tunisia and Egypt both expelled their authoritarian rulers through protests that the regimes, by and large, did not resist through the use of force.  These countries bordering Libya are now going through democratic transitions that cannot be allowed to be impacted by the chaos in Libya.

In Libya, the Qaddafi regime chose another path and responded to protests by trying to brutally repress dissent. Now, Bahrain and Syria are emulating Qaddafi’s example, by using state security forces and violence to attempt to delay the inevitable.  If Qaddafi were allowed to succeed, as President Obama said in his address to the nation on March 28, “The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power.”

What is our goal in Libya?

Much criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of Libya has focused on the supposed lack of clarity regarding U.S. goals.  President Obama first said on March 3 that Col. Qaddafi needed to leave power.  While United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorizes the use of “all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in [Libya], including Benghazi,” does not call for the use of force to remove Qaddafi from power, this remains the goal of the United States and of key coalition allies.  The President reinforced this message on March 28, by stating, “There is no question that Libya – and the world – would be better off with Qaddafi out of power.”  This was echoed in the chair’s statement from the London conference on Libya on March 29, “Participants agreed that Qadhafi and his regime have completely lost legitimacy and will be held accountable for their actions.   The Libyan people must be free to determine their own future.”

Regardless of whether Qaddafi’s exit is engineered by the tightening noose of international sanctions or by the pressure placed on his military by coalition forces, Qaddafi’s days are numbered. 

Some would like to see more clarity from President Obama about the limited goals of the operation vs. long-term U.S. interests.  Indeed, it is important that a stalemate on the ground that leaves Qaddafi in power is avoided.  As Max Boot writes, “The longer Qaddafi stays in power, the more suffering he can inflict on the people under his control, and the more mischief he can inflict on other countries—including the United States…The only way this crisis will end—the only way we and our allies can achieve our objectives in Libya—is to remove Qaddafi from power. Containment won’t suffice. We must make ‘rollback’ the international strategy.”

Regardless of views about the initial decision to intervene, now that the President of the United States has said Qaddafi must go and deployed the U.S. military into harm’s way, the impact on U.S. standing and moral authority in the Middle East and the world would be devastating if Qaddafi is allowed to cling to power.  The Obama administration appears to realize this.

Is Operation Odyssey Dawn constitutional?

Members of Congress naturally have a vested interest in protecting the legislative branch’s constitutional authorities.  Article I, Section 8 of the constitution grants the Congress the authority to declare war.  This, however, does not preclude the president from taking military action at his own initiative.  Presidents of both political parties have carried out military action of the sort taken in Libya without formal approval from the legislative branch, most recently during the 1999 war in Kosovo. 

Presidents and Congresses for decades have debated this constitutional question and the (often strongly held) opinions on the issue tend to depend upon which end of Pennsylvania Avenue one has served.  This does not mean that President Obama should ignore congressional questions about operations in Libya or that he could not have consulted Congress more extensively before undertaking military action.  However, in the last week, a number of noted legal scholars have outlined in detail why the current operation in Libya is constitutional.

In Slate, Jack Goldsmith, former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel during the administration of President George W. Bush, writes:

“[T]he president, under his commander-in-chief and other executive powers, has very broad discretion to use U.S. military force in the absence of congressional authorization. Presidents have done this, in military actions large and small, over 100 times, since the beginning of the republic.”

John Yoo, also a Justice Department official during the Bush administration, notes in the Wall Street Journal:

“Congress is too fractured, slow and inflexible to manage war. Its loose, decentralized structure would paralyze American policy while foreign threats loom. The Framers understood that Congress's real power would lie in the purse…If Congress opposes action, it can reduce funding for the military, eliminate units, or freeze supplies. Congress ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam by cutting off funds for the war. Our Constitution has succeeded because it favors swift presidential action in war, later checked by Congress's funding power.”

David Rivkin and Lee Casey, former Justice Department officials during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, write in The Washington Post that:

“During the Constitutional Convention, the power to ‘declare war’ was substituted for the power to ‘make war’ in defining congressional authority specifically to clarify that the president could use military force without first seeking Congress’s permission. According to James Madison, the particular concern was that the president should be able to ‘repel sudden attack.’ Champions of congressional warmaking powers traditionally point to this comment as limiting the president’s independent war powers to defending American soil, but even Madison’s remark was not so narrowly drawn, and the Constitution’s language is not so limited. It gives the president wide latitude to use military force, subject always to the other limits on his authority inherent in congressional control over the budget, size and existence of the national military.”

While Congress has a responsibility to hold the Executive Branch accountable for its actions, President Obama’s intervention in Libya is well within his constitutional authority and consistent with how presidents of both political parties have acted in previous conflicts.

Will al-Qaeda or other Islamist groups take over Libya if Qaddafi goes?

There have been many rumors and misconceptions about the forces that make up the Libyan opposition.  What is clear is that the Libyan rebellion appears to be a genuine popular uprising against the Qaddafi regime. Admiral James Stavridis, NATO Supreme Allied Commander, said at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that “The intelligence that I'm receiving at this point makes me feel that the leadership that I'm seeing are responsible men and women who are struggling against Col. Gadhafi.” We also know from media reports that the leadership of this rebellion, the National Transitional Council, is largely educated and secular. The group has even posted a comprehensive “vision of a democratic Libya” in English on its website

Gene Cretz, U.S. Ambassador to Libya, cautiously assessed in a March 25 State Department press conference that “the personalities that we are dealing with, the actions that they’ve taken, the statements that they have made, have all led us to conclude, at least at this beginning stage, that they are a positive force and ones that we should be engaged with at this point.”  Furthermore, American intelligence has also been unable to find an organized al-Qaeda presence within the insurgency.  A U.S. counter-terrorism official quoted by the Los Angeles Times on March 23 said, “We're keeping an eye out for extremist activity in Libya, but we haven't seen much, if any, to date.” Admiral Stavridis added, “[A]t this point I don't have detail sufficient to say that there's a significant Al Qaeda presence or any other terrorist presence in and among these folks.”

As with any armed opposition force in the region, there will likely be some opportunists who attempt to exploit the chaos and uncertainty in Libya.  Some of these individuals will not share our values or our long-term goals for a free and democratic Libya.  However, regardless of the potential presence of some malign actors in the opposition, it is difficult to imagine that the government that follows the terrorist-supporting, WMD seeking regime of Qaddafi could be much worse. 

The best way to reduce the potential dangers posed by extremist infiltration is for the United States and its allies to remain engaged in Libya.  U.S. support for and assistance to the opposition is key both for the removal of Qaddafi and for planning Libya’s post-Qaddafi future.  A letter to President Obama from former government officials and foreign policy experts released by the Foreign Policy Initiative on March 15 called on him to recognize the National Transitional Council as the legitimate government of Libya, a step that has already been taken by the Arab League, France, Qatar, and Portugal.

Can we afford this intervention in a time of financial crisis?

The United States involvement in military operations in Libya has been quite minimal compared to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the assets being used were already deployed in the region and many would have been conducting training or exercises if not being used in Operation Odyssey Dawn.  However, given current debates in Washington over the federal budget, press reports have highlighted the cost of each missile fired, each jet that crashes, and the fuel and maintenance costs associated with each flight.

Although success will not be ensured until Qaddafi departs, much has been accomplished with this minimal initial investment. This campaign has proven highly effective, in military terms, of crippling Qaddafi’s air defense system and grounding his air force. As Secretary Gates reported on NBC’s Meet the Press, “We have not seen any of his planes fly since the mission started.  We have suppressed his air defenses...We have prevented his forces from going to Benghazi, and we have taken out a good bit of his armor.”

Still, this cost-centered debate overlooks key considerations such as America’s role as the sole superpower and its global responsibilities.  It should also give those who have been advocating for significant cuts to defense spending or even reductions to America’s overseas commitments pause.  As Tom Donnelly and Gary Schmitt write in The Weekly Standard:

“To quote from the bipartisan defense commission, headed by former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and former Defense Secretary William Perry: ‘As the last 20 years have shown, America does not have the option of abandoning a leadership role in support of its national interests…Failure to anticipate and manage the conflicts that threaten those interests…will not make those conflicts go away…It will simply lead to an increasingly unstable and unfriendly global climate and, eventually, to conflicts America cannot ignore.’ In short, the world hasn’t stopped, and we can’t get off. To the contrary: Across the Middle East, the pace of events is accelerating. Our president now understands we have no choice but to become more deeply involved. It’s the right and necessary thing to do. Which is why cutting defense is the last thing America should now be doing.”

Why support a military action that even the Obama administration seems reluctant to embrace?

It is true that President Obama waited longer than many would have liked to intervene in Libya.   This delay possibly made our goal of removing Qaddafi from power more difficult.  But through his intervention, the United States has once again saved thousands of lives as a result.  Despite the frustrations of coalition warfare, previous cases, such as NATO’s intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s, show that success is possible.

As FPI Director William Kristol writes:

“In the case of Libya, though, we do suspect that the president knows that we—and he—can’t afford to lose. So Obama won’t cut and run. Nor should we underestimate the capabilities of the American military, and Qaddafi’s weakness and vulnerability. And to be fair to the Obama administration, the United States has fought previous wars—and won them—with muddled goals, mixed messages, and less than inspiring leadership. The outcome in Libya could well be satisfactory.”

The actions that the President takes will have significant consequences for the region, and the future of democracy in the Middle East. As FPI Director Robert Kagan said at a recent FPI event, “Presidents don’t get to choose which issues define them, unfortunately, but they do have a way of creeping up and defining them.”  President Obama came into office skeptical of his predecessor’s vocal support for democracy promotion in the Middle East, and yet events ironically have thrust upon him the responsibility of overseeing the greatest regional shift toward democracy seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

President Obama seems to realize that the outcome of these momentous developments will be impacted by what happens in Libya.  Will autocrats learn that democratic uprisings against their rule can be put down without consequence? Or will the United States follow through on President Obama’s pledge that “wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States?”

Additional Resources on Libya

For more information about the Foreign Policy Initiative’s activities including additional articles, summaries and video from FPI events on recent developments in the Middle East, please visit www.foreignpolicyi.org.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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